Thursday, 30 December 2010

White Van Man

Those of us who live in southern Spain can almost set our watches by the various horns of the white van men who ply their trades in the small inland villages. The sleepy narrow streets come alive throughout the day to the sound of men offering bread, vegetables, fresh fish, frozen food, gas bottles, and even knife sharpening services. To the uninitiated, all the horns sound the same but to those with a trained ear each horn has its unique timbre, pitch and resonance. In my case, I rely upon our faithful Border Collie who barks when he hears my favourite baker in the distance.
Alfonso is a jolly little soul who bakes his bread in a neighbouring village before setting off across the valley to distribute his fresh baguettes. The strong alcoholic fumes emanating from his van suggest that each of his deliveries to the local hostelries is accompanied by a complimentary tipple.
When he discovered that I was from the UK, he insisted that I teach him some English. To date, almost three years later, he has mastered precisely 4 words – bread, roll, white, and van. Whether this is down to my lack of pedagogical skills or his permanent state of inebriation, I know not.
What I do know is that he has now been struggling with word number 5 (wholemeal) for the last 12 months and I am fearful that total command of the English language may elude him. In fact, his recent greeting of ‘Salam Alaykum’ suggests that his head has been turned by the seductive charms of the Moroccan lady who lives around the corner.
As retribution, I may be forced to move my custom to his arch rival, the implausibly named John of God.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Xmas and the Helicopter

It’s now December and the festive season will soon be upon us. The skies are blue but temperatures have plummeted at night and the wind cuts to the bone. The snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada are a tempting sight for us skiers.

The other year the kids bought me a remote control helicopter as a Xmas present. Resisting the temptation to open the box on Xmas Eve, I woke up like an excited child the following morning to prepare for the inaugural flight.

The first signs were not promising – inadequate altitude and insufficient/excessive acceleration coupled with incompetent aeronautics – so I decided to move out of the safe environs of the sitting-room and into the thrill but dangers of the street. The blades rotated at speed, the vertical take-off was magnificent and the helicopter soared……… backwards. I suddenly realised that unless I took immediate action my new toy was destined for a tragic watery end in the Mediterranean so I ditched it and the helicopter made a less than graceful landing on a neighbour’s roof.

I cautiously knocked on his door. Now, I may know a few Spanish words but ‘Apologies for disturbing you on this most holy of days but my spanking new remote control helicopter has gone into a tail-spin and appears to have lodged itself on your rickety corrugated asbestos roof’ tested me to the limit. Without batting an eyelid, Francisco proceeded to place a ladder on his upper terrace and climb onto the roof. He returned a few minutes later, helicopter in hand, and rather disappointedly asked ‘Is this it?’, clearly having expected to find a full-scale model.

As we descended, I noticed the rather large cannabis plant on his patio. Perhaps this explained his relaxed frame of mind.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Shadow of Franco

It’s strange how certain songs bring the memories flooding back. I was in the car the other day, cogitating (or looking vacant as La Jefa would say), when over the radio came the flamenco rhythms of Paco de Lucia on ‘Entre dos Aguas’. This was a number 1 hit when I spent a blissful 4 months with a family in Madrid during my gap year, many moons ago.

Officially I had been employed as a live-in English teacher to their 5 sons but in reality I simply became another member of the family. The father was a prominent banker, whose rounded physique and ruddy complexion hinted at a rich enjoyment of the better things in life. He proudly showed off his 'private English tutor’ around the financial cocktail circuit of Madrid. Sadly however his pidgin English while introducing me to his boss – ‘Thees man, he is very impotent in Spain’ – suggested that I should pursue a career outside of teaching.

This was 1974, a year before the death of Franco. We spent many an evening arguing about ‘El Generalisimo’ whilst quaffing copious quantities of brandy. I even detected a tear in his eye when he showed me some home-made films of Franco visiting his in-laws’ estate for a weekend of hunting. The father was most definitely pro-Franco but a conservative rather than a Falangist. Whilst recognising Franco’s failings, he was fearful of what would happen to his beloved Spain after the Caudillo’s demise - crime, separatism, and unemployment being his greatest concerns.

To this day Franco and his legacy remain somewhat of a taboo subject in Spain and old wounds between neighbours and even within families remain raw. The ongoing controversy over the opening of the suspected grave of poet and dramatist Garcia Lorca (and other mass graves) serves as confirmation.

Monday, 13 December 2010

How to Quit Smoking

I am, for my sins, an inveterate smoker. It all started as a teenager when I wanted to impress a girl: the relationship failed but I remained hooked.  I have tried every which way to give up - nicorette patches (sore arms), nicorette gum (aching jaws), even acupuncture (punctured ego) - but nothing has worked. I even thought that our move to Spain may act as a fresh incentive to quit until I discovered that cigarettes cost less than half of the price in the UK. Moreover, whereas in the UK, I am treated almost as a social pariah, over here I am considered normal. But maybe I have found a solution.

The lugubrious Maria runs the local Estanco, a small supermarket with a licence to sell cigarettes (the Spanish government still keeps a tight rein on the sale of tobacco). The other day I popped in to buy a pack.

The conversation proceeded something along the lines of: ‘20 Fortuna Light please’ ‘We’ve run out’ ‘When is the next delivery?’ ‘Today’ ‘What time?’ ‘12 noon’ ‘But it’s already 1.30’ ‘Yes, the man’s late as always’ ‘What time does he normally come?’ ‘It varies’ ‘Shall I come back this afternoon?’ ‘Yes’ ‘What time do you suggest?’ ‘Whenever’ ‘How about 5 o’clock?’ (small stores in Spain normally close for siesta between 2 and 5) ‘I will be closed’ ‘When do you re-open?’ ‘About 6’ ‘OK I’ll be back at 6’. ‘I thought you said you were coming at 5’  ‘But you said you were shut’ ‘Yes but you only have to ring the bell’.

It’s enough to make you give up smoking. In fact it’s enough for you to give up the will to live.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A Haven for the Hypochondriac

For men of a certain age, waking with a tingling in the nether regions may initially provoke a nostalgic frisson of excitement but, when the tingling morphs into a constant dull pain, paranoia sets in – is it a hernia, maybe prostate problems or, even worse, the dreaded testicular cancer? Such was my dilemma at the beginning of the year.

After several sleepless nights and much soul-searching, I plucked up the courage to phone the Centro Diagnostico in Motril and book an appointment. The Centro, of which there are several throughout Andalucia, is exactly what it says on the tin – a diagnostic centre full of up to date medical hardware including PET and MRI scanners. For a (very reasonable) fee, you simply check yourself in, have the relevant scan/test and you are then given a comprehensive report with images to pass on to your GP or Consultant. A great idea, especially for us hypochondriacs.

Oh, for the record, my tackle is still intact but the scan showed that my hips are shot. The Centro is not simply a haven for the hypochondriac after all.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

To Catch a Thief

'There is nothing in life so cruel as to be blind in Granada' - Francisco Alarcon de Icaza

With its Moorish heritage and the magical backdrop of the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Granada is a beautiful and evocative city. It is defined by its hills and by its history, from the steep narrow cobbled streets of the Albaycin quarter to the magnificent Alhambra Palace.

Although considered safer than many tourist destinations, it does alas suffer from its share of low level crime.

A couple of years ago, as we were enjoying an alfresco dinner, a dishevelled drunk grabbed La Jefa’s mobile phone from the table and ran off down the alleyway. Yours truly, full of bravado, leapt to his feet to chase after the man. The spirit was willing but the flesh weak as my legs went from under me on the city’s notoriously slippery pavements.

I picked myself up, dusted myself down and, undeterred by the barely disguised mirth of our fellow diners, set off in hot pursuit. My cries of ‘Stop Thief’ went ignored by the locals enjoying their tinto and tapas in the warm evening air. It was only afterwards that I realised that it was their lack of English rather than lack of sympathy for my plight that stopped them from coming to my aid.

Against the odds, I eventually caught up with the perpetrator, admittedly probably due more to his inebriated state rather than my athletic prowess. Then it dawned on me – what do I now do to retrieve the mobile? The answer came in the form of one of the many sub-Saharan immigrants who sell their wares on the streets of the city. ‘Let me help you’ he said, grabbing the man by the scruff of the neck and planting a Glaswegian kiss on his forehead. ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ I mused as the man fell to the ground. My good Samaritan prised the phone from his hand and gave it to me before disappearing into the shadows.

I strode purposefully back to the restaurant, mobile proudly held high, milking the applause of the locals who had been watching the chase with bemusement. ‘Don’t tell anyone but I think I’ve torn my hamstring’ I whispered to La Jefa as she supported me back to the car.